Sabres Notebook: Defense leaving the goalies out to dry - The Buffalo News

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Sabres Notebook: Defense leaving the goalies out to dry

It is not a good time to be a goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres.

Odd-man rushes. Failing to get the puck out of the zone. More odd-man rushes.

There are times when there's not much more the Sabres netminders can do.

In Monday afternoon's 6-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils in KeyBank Center, it was backup Chad Johnson who was tagged for six goals, including another shorthanded tally against the Sabres.

"It just seemed like they had a lot of jam. They were tenacious on the pucks," Johnson said. "They just seemed to capitalize on a lot of our mistakes. There are obviously areas you need to tighten up on and at this level if you make the littlest mistake, teams take advantage of it. For the most part it has to be tight. I don't know how to explain that to be honest. They were just really good tonight. They made us look not great."

The goals against have not been looking great for the first three games of the season. Johnson played just two periods on Monday with Robin Lehner making nine saves in the third period.

On Saturday in Brooklyn, it was Johnson who relieved Lehner after the starter gave up four goals. But it's not a situation where the goalies are talking about what went wrong. For Johnson, it's about looking at the situation to determine if he needs to make an adjustment or, just frankly, be better.

"You have to look at the situations, the chances, and evaluate whether you change something or not," Johnson said. "For myself, I look at certain plays and I don't think there's a lot of change. You want to make saves and try to make bigger saves if you have to and be there for the team. I'm going to review tonight with (goaltending coach Andrew Allen) and go from there. But it's the NHL. Sometimes players make plays. Sometimes you have to adjust and sometimes you just have to wake up."

Sabres' early season summary: 'We're just doing a lot of things wrong'

Perhaps the biggest wakeup needed comes from the Sabres penchant for giving up odd-man rushes. Those have left both Johnson and Lehner in some precarious positions.

"If we're giving up two-on-ones, breakaways, stuff like that, shorthanded, I mean, it shouldn't happen," Johnson said. " Usually odd-man rushes are once every three games. … Odd-man rushes should be at a premium."

But instead of being at a premium, odd-man rushes have been a dime a dozen for Sabres opponents. And that's what Sabres coach Phil Housley wants to change. Quickly.

"I think the goaltending has been pretty solid," Housley said. "The two-on-ones, the odd-man rushes, we've got to clean that up and clean that up in hurry. At times in the game we're leaving them out to dry back there. We've got to tighten it up for sure."

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There aren't many, if any, players in the Sabres dressing room who have been happy with their play. Add Kyle Okposo to that list of guys searching for an answer.

"We have to be able to look in the mirror after the game and I don't think there's a lot of guys that can do that right now, myself included," Okposo said.

The forward has just one shot, no points, and is a minus-6 on the season that is only three games old.

The analysis of the problem rings pretty familiar to Sabres fans – trying too hard, thinking too much, and not playing with enough heart.

"Just squeezing the sticks too tight, not really getting in there in the battle, just kind of second-guessing everything we're doing instead of playing on our toes and just going," Okposo said. "If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. At least do it at 100 percent, full-speed, just battling.

"That's always what happens when you're struggling. You start to think and you try to think your way out of it. If you try to do that, you usually get a step behind. I feel like we just have to get on our toes and just get moving. Just go. Just go. Just go. See what happens. Then you're going to stop thinking. You're going to start making plays automatically like you've done since you were 5 years old. We just need a little bit less cerebral and a little more heart."

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Okposo had to make a quick jersey change in the first period. His sweater had his named spelled incorrectly, reading "Okoposo."

"I had no idea," Okposo said. "A trainer told me. I don't look at the back. I've been in this league a while. That's the first time."

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New Jersey Devils forward Nico Hischier picked up his first NHL point Monday, setting up Brian Gibbons for the Devils' second goal of the game. Hischier was the overall No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft.

“That’s more of what Nico does; he’s very good with the puck," New Jersey coach John Hynes said. "I think when you look at that whole play, he was under pressure high in the offensive zone, he had some poise, he protected the puck, used his feet down low and then spins out of another check below the goal line and then makes a play under pressure. That’s what he’s been able to do and it’s nice to be able to have players like that that can make those plays under pressure.”

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Former Buffalo Sabres captain Brian Gionta was invited to practice with the Rochester Americans as the center prepares for international play.

"We were recently approached by Brian and his agent about him practicing regularly with Rochester as he prepares for international competition," Amerks general manager Randy Sexton said in a press release. "While Brian's role with the team will be limited to practicing only, we feel this can be a real win-win situation for both he and the Amerks organization."

The 38-year-old Gionta is a native of Rochester and has played in 1,006 NHL games with the Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils. In his 16-year pro career, he has 588 points (289 goals, 299 assists).

Gionta served as team captain in his last seven seasons including his last three in Buffalo where he notched 103 points. He became a free agent in the summer and did not sign a contract with any NHL team.

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Tickets for the outdoor game between the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers at Citi Field go on sale Oct. 12. The teams will be meeting in the 2018 NHL Winter Classic at 1 p.m. on Jan. 1 at the home of the New York Mets.

Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Oct. 12 through Ticketmaster.com and the NHL Ticket Exchange.

It will be the 10th anniversary of the first Winter Classic, which the Sabres hosted on Jan. 2, 2008, at New Era Field (then called Ralph Wilson Stadium). The Sabres lost, 2-1, in a shootout to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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